Eugene Robinson runs after catching an interception. Herald file photo
Like many football players of his generation, Eugene Robinson couldn't stand the word no. Not when they told him he was too small, not when they told him he didn't have an impressive college pedigree and not when they told him that he was no longer good enough. Eugene Robinson defied the odds many times during a 16-year NFL career. While he takes pride in being one of the few players to go from non-scholarship Colgate University to the starting lineup of an NFL team, the thing that he remembers most about his career is how he won back the starting job that was once taken away. Robinson did it in typical style, by hitting an opponent so hard that it was impossible for the coaches not to sit up and take notice. Perhaps no story better defines the hard-hitting safety than the one about how he refused to take no for an answer.
With a 5-foot-9, 145-pound frame, a passion for comic books and a spot on the National Honor Society, Eugene Robinson was not the prototypical football player while at Weaver High School in Hartford, Conn. And he knew it. So the little guy with the big dreams made a point of trying to make an impact every time he was on the field. More often than not, he did, as many of his opponents undoubtedly remember. There was the time when Weaver was playing against a New Haven High School team that included a star running back who weighed in at around 200 pounds. "Everyone was worried he was going to run us over," Robinson recalled years later. "I knew he wouldn't run me over." And so Robinson laid out the running back that carried nearly 60 pounds of advantage. It would become a staple of Robinson's repertoire during a high school career that saw the Weaver High team knock off the No. 1 team in the state en route to a third-place trophy. Hitting bigger opponents was one of Robinson's favorite things to do.
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Robinson's studious nature helped him thrive in the classroom as well. An avid reader – he still remembers his first book, "Three Billy Goats Gruff," which he read at the age of 4 – Robinson earned a degree in computer science and appeared to be well on his way to a successful career in software technology. But the football itch was one he needed to scratch. After running the 40-yard dash in a comparatively slow time of 4.66 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, Robinson saw only one option in the upstart United States Football League. The USFL's New Jersey Generals selected Robinson in the 1985 territorial draft, giving the Connecticut native hope of playing at the professional level. "I said to myself: I can do this," he said of attending training camp with the Generals. "I didn't think I was too much different from the other guys there."
Eugene Robinson (#41) along with Dave Brown knocks down a pass in a game for the Seahawks. Herald file photo
The game I remember the best isn't a game we won or a game of much significance for the team, but it was the game when I made my biggest hit when I really needed to. Before the season, Coach Chuck Knox wanted to go in a different direction, so he traded for a safety named Johnnie Johnson, who he knew from the Rams. He wanted him to play free safety. Incidentally, I had to do a lot of praying for Coach and a lot of praying for myself so I wouldn't have a bitter attitude. But I was pretty hot. My wife kept reminding me to pray, to pray for Coach Knox. I was angry, and I took it personally, so there was a lot of prayer that year. In the end, I took my frustration out on Keith Jackson. He was the Eagles' Pro Bowl tight end, a big guy who had about 60 pounds on me. We were in Cover-2, and I was back on the right half of the defense, maybe 15 to 20 yards deep. I saw Keith run a post route. He was coming back into my area. As I saw him, I was debating whether to go for the interception or the knockout. I went for the knockout. And that's exactly what I did. I knocked him out -- lights out. I'm coming across the field, and as he's coming toward me, I'm accelerating on the ball. I hit him so fast and so hard that he didn't have a chance to react. It was such a clean hit, and it happened so fast, that he hit the ground before he knew he got hit. The sound wasn't a whap or a smack like you see in the Batman comics. It's not like that. But I just wrecked him. To me, it was like a blip on the screen. I didn't really feel it. He was a lot bigger than me, but there was no hesitation at all. Tight ends are easy to hit. Size is a misnomer. People think that it's how big you are. But it has nothing to do with the size. He weighed, at that time, 235 or 240. He's coming across the middle, looking at the ball, and he can't see me. I could have just stood still, and he'd have fallen down. It's like stepping into a hole when you don't know the hole's not there. It doesn't matter how big the hole is, or how small the hole is. If you're not expecting it, you'll fall. He wasn't expecting me to be there, and then I had all this anger -- I was mad -- and that helped too. That was one of the hardest hits I've ever had. When they picked him up off the field, he was dragging. I remember looking at Coach Knox and saying, 'I'm back. Don't forget me now.' Keith Jackson and I are friends to this day – we ended up playing together in Green Bay – and so we can joke about it now. We argue about it all the time. He says I cheap-shot him. But I didn't cheap-shot him. I hit him across the middle and knocked him out. I think we ended up losing that game. But it was a time for me where, even though I had lost my starting spot, I reassumed it quickly. I made a statement. I showed all my peers and Coach Knox that, hey, it's on; Eugene Robinson is in the game. We weren't a powerhouse that season. We finished with a 7-9 record and missed out on the playoffs. There was nothing else memorable about that year, other than the time that I got medieval on Keith Jackson. I really needed that, just to boost the confidence. Johnnie Johnson and I split time the next game, and then he got cut and I became the guy. Three or four games into that season, they ended up cutting Johnnie Johnson. He went from a starter to out of a job. And I ended up having a really good year that year.
Robinson started the final 14 games of the 1989 season, leading the team in both tackles (102) and interceptions (five). It was just a sampling of what was to come. Over the next six seasons, Robinson would emerge as the leader of Seattle's defense. He was named team captain four consecutive years, was named the franchise's Man of the Year four times and went to his first two Pro Bowls in 1992 and '93. In 1993, he led the entire NFL with nine interceptions, which marked the second-highest total in franchise history. Perhaps his greatest achievements came off the field. The Man of the Year award took into account Robinson's locker room leadership, his steady play and his work with charitable groups. He had become a pillar in the community and one of the most recognizable sports stars in the city of Seattle. No one was questioning whether Robinson had what it took to thrive in the NFL anymore. And yet, Robinson's career as a Seahawks would not last forever. Like countless stars throughout professional sports, Robinson saw his dream of playing an entire career in one city come to an end in 1996. The recent addition of the NFL's salary cap left an alarming number of productive veterans throughout the league in precarious positions, with many teams purging their rosters of big salaries. Robinson, who was due to make $1 million in 1996, was traded to Green Bay for a defensive end named Matt LaBounty. Shortly after being traded, the 33-year-old Robinson called a press conference to speak with local reporters. Rather than rip the team for cutting its indisputable leader, Robinson just wanted to publicly thank the organization for giving him a shot. If he had any regrets about his 11-year career in Seattle, it was that the Seahawks didn't have enough success on the field. He went to just two postseasons, in 1987 and '88, and at the time of the trade the team was coming off a miserable four-year run that saw it go 22-42.
Eugene Robinson during a game for the Seahawks. Robinson was known for hitting hard, bringing down players much larger than him. Herald file photo
Eugene Robinson recovers a fumble before running for a touchdown in a game for the Seahawks. Herald file photo
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